When we think about tires it’s either when we have a flat, need them rotated or have to buy new ones. We seldom think about the effects tires have on our environment. In 2009, the United States generated 269 million scrap tires, with passenger cars accounting for 189 million of them.

tire dump

However, according to Michael Blumenthal, vice president of the Rubber Manufacturers, by 1990, 48 states had scrap tire laws. An estimated 2 to 3 billion tires were in stockpiles back then. Blumenthal says, 90 percent of the piles have been “abated.”

The biggest fear, especially with places like Tire Mountain in Weld County, Colorado, is that they’ll catch fire. Scrap tires are also known to be mosquito breeding grounds. When they are imported from China or Japan they end up increasing the range of Asian species that carry West Nile and other diseases.

Other than places setting on fire and people getting sick, recycling and repurposing tires is part of a rare environmental success story. In 2011, 197 million scrap tires were recycled or repurposed. Tire-derived fuel accounted for 40 percent of the mix in 2009, but more than 500,000 tons became ground rubber, playground walkways, sports surfacing, auto parts such as floor mats, and much more. Thanks to these recycling endeavors, we are officially down to 76 million stockpiled tires here in the U.S.

rubber grass

Many playgrounds are repurposing old tires into creative architecture, and providing soft landings for kids who fall off jungle gyms. Patapsco Valley State Park in Maryland has a two-acre recycled tire playground available for 5-12 year olds.

Patapsco State Park tire playground

Patapsco State Park tire playground

Kim Del Castillo, recycling coordinator for Del Rio, Texas, which is three miles from the Mexican Border, helped pull out 802 abandoned tires in a Bridgestone sponsored event last year. Some Solid Waste Districts have limited tire markets in their regions and therefore don’t have in-state tire processing and few civil engineering projects. Most of the collected tires become tire-derived fuel, however, Greer Tidwell, director of environmental management at Bridgestone, says they’d ideally want to simply turn them back into tires. “We’re not at a slam-dunk stage with old tires, but we’re at least rolling down the road.”

Every year we produce and discard many tires. However, every year we find new innovative ways to repurpose those old tires. Let’s hope this is the beginning of numerous tire innovations and less of tire mountains.